07. December 2007 · Comments Off on A Sunday Morning at the End of the World · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, Military, War

“Life in the wide world goes on much as it has these past age, full of its own comings and goings, scarcely aware of the existence of hobbits… for which I am very thankful.” – Gandalf, from “The Fellowship of the Ring”

There are some things that are so obvious that 20-20 hind-sight is not required, and Sunday, December 7th 1941 is one of them. The events of a couple of hours in the skies over a tiny Pacific Island previously known more as a tourist destination and a source for sugar and pineapples created a rift across the American consciousness, an abrupt demarcation between “then” and “now”. Very much like the effect of 9-11, a snap of a cosmically huge cracker into two pieces; you could look across to the other half of the cracker, and see that on either side of the chasm everything appeared to look just the same… but in your heart, you knew that things were not the same, and would never be quite the same again.

It was a smaller world, that America of seven decades ago, a very local, insular and insulated world, and one which moved comparatively slowly. Only the wealthiest or most adventurous traveled widely. Those who did travel did so by train, or passenger steamship in varying degrees of luxury. Passenger air travel was in its infancy, an exotic and expensive curiosity, as was television – a fancy futuristic gadget displayed at the 1939 Worlds’ Fair. People got their news from newspapers and movie news reels, from weekly magazines like “Life” and “The Saturday Evening Post”, and from the radio. Telephones were large clumsy black objects, nine out of ten on a party line, if you had one at all in your home. Urgent news came by telegram, a little slip of paper delivered by a bicycle messenger.

There was a war on, in that year of 1941; a war that been brewing for years before it finally burst into the open. Europe had been at war and China… poor fractured China, had been racked and wrecked by warlords, civil war and the Japanese for most of a decade. To Americans, it was all very tragic… but it was happening somewhere else. America of 1941 was built on a century and half of emigration by people who had consciously chosen to leave the old world with its resentments and quarrels behind. The consensus among most ordinary working Americans was that it was none of our business and best to keep out of it. A bill to draft military-age men had just barely been passed, the standing regular Army and Navy were insular little worlds all their own. The catastrophe of our own Civil War was just passing out of living memory, but recollection of World War I remained quite vivid, along with the conviction that we had been suckered into participation against our best interests. Asia’s quarrels and Europe’s quarrels were nothing to do with Americans and there was an ocean – which took better than a week to cross by ship – between us and the belligerent parties anyway.

And then one Sunday morning, under a tropical blue sky, all those happy assumptions went up in showers of smoke, explosions and flame. We may not have had an interest in the quarrels of others… but those quarrels definitely had an interest in us. And we were reminded again, those of us who forgotten or chosen to put that knowledge to one side, that the world is with us always.

A long while ago, I read an essay about the day after Pearl Harbor – can’t remember where, or by whom – but one of the memories recorded was from a person who had lived on or near the big Navaho Reservation, in the Southwest. On the morning of Monday, December 8th, 1941 – so this person recalled – every able-bodied male on the reservation over the age of seventeen showed up at their local post offices, carrying a gun and wanting to volunteer for the war… a war that had chosen them.

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